New Year’s, Blogs and Star Wars

As we wind up 2015, I want to pause a moment, reflect on the year and say thank-you to all of you who joined me on pastorjeffgunn.com for the very first year of my blog’s existence. So many of you commented favorably on the posts, and told me you found them to be engaging, helpful and relevant to your life. Just so you know — you were all a great encouragement to me to keep on keepin’ on!

Second, if you look in the column on the left side of my blog, you’ll see that countdown number to “The Big Day” has been replaced today with “The big day is here.” So, for those of you who read through your Bible with the CrossWalk staff for an entire year, I want to say, “Congratulations! Well done! You made it.” And thank you for doing this with us. I hope you found the journey to be enlightening, encouraging and faith-strengthening.

I can’t go without mentioning my brother-in-Christ and my friend, Paul Montenieri for joining me on this blog, offering up his thoughts and comments every single day. Thanks, Paul! I loved your daily comments and your prayers. They built me up (by the way, so did the ticket to watch the Cardinals whip up on the Vikings, and the great tailgate party beforehand — now that’s how to have a great time!).

For those of you who joined us mid-year, or who would simply like to go back and read through the Bible again, I’ve added a new feature that will allow you to go back and keep on using the blog. You’ll discover that you now have the ability to search posts via a monthly archive.

For example, tomorrow is January 1, so you would go to the archive drop down menu in the left column, click on the arrows and select January. The most recent January post (January 31) will be at the top, so simply scroll back until you reach January 1, and read that post along with the corresponding Bible verse. Boom! You’re all set to continue reading through the Bible in a year.

If you’re looking for a new plan to read through your Bible in a year, the CrossWalk staff will be following the “ownit365” whole Bible plan, which you can locate on Bible.com, or on your youversion app. It’s also available at ownit365.com, which has an accompanying app, too.

For exciting developments at pastorjeffgunn.com, check back in the next few days. I'll be sharing my 2016 vision for this blog.

Have a fun (and safe) New Year’s Eve celebration tonight! Julie and I will be catching dinner and the new Star Wars movie. A friend told me it made him feel like an 11 year old again. I think that might actually be a step upward in my development as a person.

I’m ready!

Header image based on "Sunrise" by Francisco Antunes, CC By 2.0

 

 

 

Return to Eden

Today we come full circle. One year ends. And tomorrow, another begins.

We experienced another year of God’s grace. And we will experience another year of God’s grace in the coming year. We will discover new talents and abilities. New jobs, new friends, new babies and new adventures will merge into our lives. More forgiveness, more peace, more hope will work its way into our hearts because of our Savior Jesus.

Because we live in a fallen world, under the curse of sin, we will need God’s grace in the coming year. Alongside the many blessings, there will also be pain and sorrow, hardship and difficulty. In the coming year there will be illnesses and accidents. There will be losses and grief. There will be guilt and shame over sins committed, and hurts caused.

Here we want to thrive, yet often we find ourselves struggling to survive.

We have not yet arrived in heaven. But we should know that our sin-cursed and fallen world is moving toward a destination. One day, it will be destroyed by fire, and its elements will melt in the heat.

And then will come a new heaven and a new earth. As John, the apostle, draws back the veil on this wonderful home for mankind, we see a place God has built for his people to thrive for eternity.

It’s a place very similar — perhaps identical — to the first place God created for mankind. That too was a place built for God’s people to thrive for eternity.

There we will drink from the river of life, and eat the fruit of the tree of life. There will be not one, but twelve harvests a year. Health will be a permanent state. The curse — along with the death it brings with it — will be gone forever.

There God will live with us. We will see him face to face. And his name will be imprinted on us for all to know whose we are.

No more darkness or night. No more fears (or sins) brought about by the darkness either. Hunger and thirst, gone forever. Pain and sorrow will never be seen again. Nor will loneliness or discord ever be known there.

We will have returned to life as God originally intended it. Through the work of Jesus Christ, our Savior, we will enter a restored Eden. A fallen existence will end. A glorious future will begin.

“Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him. They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. There will be no more night. They will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will give them light. And they will reign for ever and ever” (Revelation 22:1-5, NIV).

Jesus, thank you for another year of your grace, blessing, providence and protection. Grant that in 2016 I will continue to experience your forgiveness, mercy, peace and hope. Through the teaching of the gospel, send me your Holy Spirit as my Comforter and Counselor, so that I may trust in you always, and one day enjoy your presence forever in a restored Eden.

Our Bible reading for Thursday, December 31, is Nehemiah 13:1-31, Revelation 22:1-21 and Psalm 150:1-6.

Header image based on "2014-001 new journey" by Robert Couse-Baker, CC By 2.0

Everything New

Benjamin Franklin is famous for many things. But one of his most well-known sayings, written in 1789, is this: “Our new Constitution is now established, and has an appearance that promises permanency; but in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.”

Death and taxes. And having lived in places in the world where taxes are far from certain, I would reduce that to one: death. Death is the single, solitary experience that all mankind will experience in common.

So one would think that more people would be truly interested in the question, “Is this life — this world — all there is?” Because all of us are certainly going to find out the answer to this question one day.

But what if God has shared the answer with us already? What if the author of the universe has written into the script of our universe — his word — hints of what’s coming next? What if he gave one of his apostles a vision of a future universe — a new heaven and new earth that will one day replace our current heaven and earth?

Well, in fact, that’s exactly what he did. And John, the apostle, gives us a report of what he witnessed when God gave him a preview.

There will be, following the death of this world, a new material world. The church, the “bride of Christ,” will find a home there. And God himself will come down and live in our midst.

God will be with us there for eternity. He will make everything new, and everything will always be safe and good. Grief and sorrow will be a thing of the past. Pain will be unknown in this new heaven and earth.

The old sin-mangled, death-demolished order of things will pass away. And he will make everything new.

As the “old order” of 2015 passes away, and God takes us into a new year, let’s take the cue that the passing of the years is a hardy reminder to us: A far more important new beginning is coming soon.

And we can be certain of it.

“Then I saw ‘a new heaven and a new earth,’ for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes.There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away. He who was seated on the throne said, ‘I am making everything new!’ Then he said, ‘Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true'” (Revelation 21:1-5, NIV).

Jesus, thank you for saving me from sin, death and the power of the devil. Thank you for dying on the cross for me, and for rising from the grave for me. Thank you for promising to prepare a new heaven and new earth where I will live with you forever, and never again experience grief or pain.

Our Bible reading for Wednesday, December 30, is Nehemiah 11:22 – 12:47, Revelation 21:1-27 and Proverbs 31:21-31.

Header image based on "Clouds cover the top of the Andes..." by Matthew Straubmuller, CC By 2.0

He Delights in Us

What makes God happy? His redeemed people do. What does he delight in? He absolutely loves to take people who are in humble situations or adverse circumstances and lift them up. He loves making winners out of losers.

The biggest example of this, of course, is when God became man. He did this to take us from being lost, alienated and condemned sinners and bring us into the kingdom of those he loves. That’s where, as his found and forgiven children, we can enjoy his presence and kindness forever.

But there are many smaller (though still quite momentous!) examples throughout the Bible. Abraham and Sarah, a couple who couldn’t have children, became the parents of a people as numerous as the stars in the sky. David, a shepherd boy, would slay a giant and become a king over God’s people. Paul, a murderer, would transform into a missionary apostle and the author of much of the New Testament.

Whenever we go “from zero to hero,” our response of faith is to think, “I couldn’t have done that without God.” That’s what all three of the above certainly believed. They rejoiced to think that God was their Maker and their King.

And in that joy, they worshiped.

As you think back over the past year, perhaps you recognize that you were the object of God’s delight. There were blessings that came from your Maker and King. Perhaps God took you once or twice from a losing situation to a winning one. It’s quite certain that he provided for you and protected you in 2015 — especially through the difficult times and in the hardships you experienced.

That’s not to mention that he daily forgave your sins, and strengthened your faith through the teaching of his word and the blessing of the sacraments. And he enabled you through the Spirit’s power to walk a little closer to him, a little more deeply in his grace, a little more obedient to his holy will.

In that joy, let us worship. Because, clearly, he delights in us. And again and again, he crowns us with victory.

“Let Israel rejoice in their Maker;
    let the people of Zion be glad in their King.
Let them praise his name with dancing
    and make music to him with timbrel and harp.
For the Lord takes delight in his people;
    he crowns the humble with victory.
Let his faithful people rejoice in this honor
    and sing for joy on their beds” (Psalm 149:2-5, NIV).

Lord, thank you for your provision and protection in 2015. I praise you for redeeming me from my sins and unbelief. I know from this — and from my own life experience — that you delight in me, your child. And I rejoice that you will crown me with eternal victory through your Son, Jesus Christ.

Our Bible reading for Tuesday, December 29, is Nehemiah 9:38 – 11:21, Revelation 20:1-15 and Psalm 149:1-9.

Header image based on "never underestimate the joy of victory" by Kira Westland, CC By 2.0

Not the Usual Picture of Jesus

When I think of Jesus, the words that first come into my head are words like this: Savior, Lord, love, forgiveness, grace, mercy, help in time of need. And I find great comfort and peace in thinking about Jesus this way.

So when I read John’s description of Jesus in Revelation chapter 19, it’s a little shocking to think of words like this: king, judge, warrior, ruler, powerful, truth, justice, punishment. Frankly, I feel frightened and discomforted when I think of Jesus in these terms.

And it makes me want to ask, “Will the real Jesus please stand up?

Am I right to be comforted by thoughts of Jesus? Or should I be frightened by him… frightened of him?

The answer, as we’ve seen so many times in the Bible, is that Jesus is “both/and.” And perhaps I’m going against the grain here, but I’m going to argue that “both/and” is not only who Jesus is, it’s also exactly who we would want him to be.

When I’m seriously wronged, treated unjustly, or injured by the selfish, greedy, arrogant, envious acts of others, I want to know that there’s justice in the universe. I long to know that there is someone “officiating” this game called life, someone who is interested in fairness and rightness.

If you don’t like the sound of this — of a Jesus like this — it may just mean that you haven’t yet been truly, deeply, seriously wronged in life.

Then again, when I’m the wrongdoer (which I all too frequently am), and I feel guilty and ashamed of the hurts I’ve caused God and others in my life, I want nothing more than mercy and forgiveness. I want to know I’m loved unconditionally, and will be shown grace by a Savior who doesn’t demand that I earn his love with my goodness.

The following picture of our Lord’s anger at the sin and rebellion he sees in his world is without question a frightening — even terrifying — picture of him. But, as John says here, this is the Savior who is Faithful and True.

And this means that Jesus is also faithful to his promises to forgive your sins and love you. And he remained true to you all the way to the cross, where he bled and died for you. He remained faithful and true to you all the way to the empty tomb, where he rose again, and now lives at the right hand of the Heavenly Father, constantly interceding for you in love.

Let this picture of Jesus — this image of his faithful and true grace — be the picture and the image that lingers in our hearts, even as we acknowledge the truth of (and the need for) the picture John gives us here of a Jesus who fights back against sin and injustice.

“I saw heaven standing open and there before me was a white horse, whose rider is called Faithful and True. With justice he judges and wages war. His eyes are like blazing fire, and on his head are many crowns. He has a name written on him that no one knows but he himself. He is dressed in a robe dipped in blood, and his name is the Word of God. The armies of heaven were following him, riding on white horses and dressed in fine linen, white and clean. Coming out of his mouth is a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations. ‘He will rule them with an iron scepter.’ He treads the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God Almighty. On his robe and on his thigh he has this name written:

KING OF KINGS AND LORD OF LORDS” (Revelation 19:11-16, NIV).

Our Bible reading for Monday, December 28, is Nehemiah 9:1-37, Revelation 19:11-21 and Psalm 148:7-14.

Lord, I know that I deserve your justice, your anger and your punishment. I am sinful, and I have far too often rebelled against you. Thank you for remaining faithful in your love and forgiveness toward me. Please be gracious to me and give me what I do not deserve. Give me instead what you have earned for me through your perfect life and innocent death.

Header image based on "Jesus Christ Wallpaper" by spurgeon1888, CC By 2.0

New Strength for a New Year

All the research indicates the same thing. More and more young people are shying away from attending church on Sundays. They’re feeling it’s become old school and irrelevant.

Of course, the reality is, it’s not just young people, but people of all ages who have determined to ditch church for greener pastures. And I kind of get it.

Listening to music that might not be anywhere near my preferred musical style, followed by a lengthy monologue — even a relatively interesting one — and then after all that, being asked to fork over some of my hard-earned cash. That kind of sounds like a recipe for disaster in today’s fast-paced, attention grabbing, economically challenged world.

Who wants this anymore? This is supposed to build up our spirits and give us strength to face life’s challenges? How does that work?

I’m going to take a stab at responding to these questions. More than that, I’m going to take on the even more daunting task of challenging you to make getting back to church on Sundays your number 1 New Year’s resolution.

In Old Testament times, the children of Israel had been serving a sentence of exile that lasted — for many of them — over 70 years. When they finally returned from Babylon to their homeland, they were so grateful to be home that they demanded their “pastor” Ezra come out, read the Bible, and teach them.

The sermon lasted something like 6 hours. Yikes!

But something strange happened. The people listened like their lives depended on it. The people stood still, perked their ears up, and asked themselves, “How is this relevant to me? How does it apply to my life?”

What they heard from God’s word brought them to their knees. It grounded them in divine, spiritual reality. It rang true in their hearts and compared favorably to their life’s experiences. “Amen!” (“This is absolutely true!”) sprang from their lips.

So many people were eager to learn that they broke into small groups where they could ask their questions, and have other teachers respond. The Levites dove back into the Bible and worked with the people, explaining the meaning so they could be clear on what God was telling them.

Then their leader Nehemiah stood up and reminded them why they had so strenuously sought to have Ezra and the Levites teach them. It was to bring them out of their grief and restore their strength.

And where would that strength come from? God’s words and promises would remind them always. The joy they receive from the Lord would be their strength. God’s love, mercy, grace, the Lord’s peace, provision and protection — these would be their joy. And that joy would be their daily strength.

Who doesn’t need peace, joy and strength in their lives? My challenge to you this New Year’s is simply this: Take a serious look at the Israelites’ example. They believed the Bible’s teaching would give them these things and they gave God a chance to make good on his promises.

How about you? Will you give God a chance to make good on his promises in 2016?

It might just lead to surprising new strength for you in this new year!

“All the people came together as one in the square before the Water Gate. They told Ezra the teacher of the Law to bring out the Book of the Law of Moses, which the Lord had commanded for Israel.

So on the first day of the seventh month Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly, which was made up of men and women and all who were able to understand. He read it aloud from daybreak till noon as he faced the square before the Water Gate in the presence of the men, women and others who could understand. And all the people listened attentively to the Book of the Law.

Ezra opened the book. All the people could see him because he was standing above them; and as he opened it, the people all stood up. Ezra praised the Lord, the great God; and all the people lifted their hands and responded, ‘Amen! Amen!’ Then they bowed down and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground.

The Levites… instructed the people in the Law while the people were standing there. They read from the Book of the Law of God, making it clear and giving the meaning so that the people understood what was being read.

Nehemiah said, ‘Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared. This day is holy to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength'” (Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-8, 10, NIV).

Lord Jesus, let your joy — the joy of the Lord — be my strength. Help me to stay faithful to you and your word in the coming year, and grant me your Holy Spirit so that I may live in your love, forgiveness and power in the coming year.

Our Bible reading for Sunday, December 27, is Nehemiah 7:4 – 8:18, Revelation 18:17 – 19:10 and Psalm 148:1-6.

Header image based on "2016 Calendar..." by Jeff Djevdet, CC By 2.0

Beautiful

In the course of a year, $8 billion dollars is spent in the United States on cosmetics. Over a lifetime, a typical women spends $15,000 on makeup products.

That’s a huge investment in outward beauty. And it’s not just money. According to a Today/AOL report completed in 2014, the average woman takes 55 minutes to run through her daily beauty routine.

Interestingly, while men still appear to be far behind the women in spending time and money this way, recent studies seem to show them beginning to close the gap.

Looking back on the beauty routines of the ancient Greeks, Romans and Egyptians, none of this represents anything new, I’d guess.

There’s absolutely nothing sinful about investing modest sums in enhancing one’s physical beauty, as long as we do not somehow wrap our identity (and even our destiny) around such things. That being said, in ancient times and in modern, what has always been most needed is beauty of the heart and mind.

When a woman finds her identity in Christ, her inner confidence, peace and joy begin to radiate to the outside. As faith in Jesus’ love and goodness grows, true, inner beauty glows brighter and brighter. A woman who knows to the depth of her very being that she is God’s daughter, and carries herself that way, will always possess that something extra.

Inward beauty trumps outward beauty any day of the week, and twice on Sunday. It’s value is infinitesimally greater, as the author of Proverbs 31 notes. While the added value is huge to the woman herself, to her family members and business partners, none will see the value of a woman of noble character more clearly than the woman’s husband.

Some may consider this section rather “old fashioned.” But broaden it out. How many companies have failed in recent years from “all star” CEO’s having abysmal failures of character? They may have had all kinds of wonderful talents and abilities. But in the end, what truly counted was their character.

The book of Proverbs begins as a father’s advice to his son. And one way of looking at the final chapter of Proverbs is to see it as a father’s advice to his daughter. So maybe the question is simply this, “What do we want to see our daughters grow up to become? What beauty do we want them to see as their true beauty?”

“A wife of noble character who can find? She is worth far more than rubies. Her husband has full confidence in her and lacks nothing of value. She brings him good, not harm, all the days of her life” (Proverbs 31:10-12, NIV).

Jesus, help our daughters to grow up to be beautiful in your sight. May we have both men and women of gospel-motivated character in positions of leadership in our world so that our world may continue in peace and harmony, with great productivity. And through this, Lord, may your name be glorified and your kingdom come, as the gospel reaches to the ends of the earth.

Our Bible reading for Saturday, December 26, is Nehemiah 5:1 – 7:3, Revelation 18:1-17 and Proverbs 31:10-20.

Header image based on "Girl in Make-Up Mirror" by Saxbald Street Photography, CC By 2.0